Preached April 3, 2022. St. John’s Williamstown Williamstown, Massachusetts
John 12: 1 – 8
The smell of nard is woody, musty, and spicy. If you were alive in the 1980s, you might remember the perfumes called Poison and Obsession. They were rich, earthy scents some of us soaked ourselves in.
I wore Poison in college. In preparing this sermon I googled this perfume and saw it described as “the ultimate weapon of seduction.” I promise I didn’t know this when I was 19.
One day I took a cab from my college to the train station in town. Let me preface this by saying that since childhood I was a chronically shy person, barely able to talk in most situations.
I realize the irony of sharing this information with you from a church pulpit.
Suffice it to say, I was not one to draw attention to myself. And this day, confined in this taxi cab, obliviously wearing my Poison perfume, the driver turned to me and said something along the lines of, “My dear, you smell very exotic.” I thought I would die.
I share this story to emphasize the sensuality of today’s gospel.
Today’s gospel leads us into a house slowly filling with the intoxicating aroma of oils and spices.
Mary is with Martha and Lazarus at a dinner in honor of Jesus. This is an emotionally charged gathering. Let’s spend a moment with this.
Their brother who had died was sitting with them at table. Think of someone you have lost. If you could see that person one more time, after all the embraces and the weeping, what would you want to do next? Maybe, like Martha, sit them down and feed them.
This family is intimately connected with Jesus who shared Mary and Martha’s grief when Lazarus died; Jesus wept at the news of that death. Jesus then raised Lazarus from the dead.
Hospitality of the time dictated the washing of guests’ feet with water, and the annointing of their heads with oil. Mary exceeds this. Perhaps she intended only to anoint Jesus’ head, but loses herself in devotion, pouring a whole pound of perfume upon his feet. The heady scent wafts through the house.
Mary is emotionally overcome in the presence of the divine. Some of us approach God more rationally.
“The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides saw philosophy and science as a medium for attaining the heights of religious experience—love and awe of God” (Halbertal, 2).
The intellect can bring us to God rationally. And others are drawn in by God’s abundant pouring forth. I am not privileging one way of relating to God over another. For example, our beloved rector was a philosophy major. I, in my Poison perfume, was not a philosophy major.
Back to the text. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas essentially argues that Mary’s behavior is irrational. Keep in mind, irrational is one among many words used historically to invalidate or control women. Other words include emotional, hysterical, dramatic.
When the great Spanish saint of the 16th century, Teresa of Avila, told her confessor she was having visions of God, he told her she was delusional.
Judas does not see as Mary sees. He does not perceive God’s audacious generosity and generativity. The text says Judas is concerned because he is a thief. But what causes greed and theft but anxiety? Anxiety says that no matter how much we have, it may not be enough.
What if Judas’ concern about Mary’s lavish spilling of the nard is not greed but anxiety about his own role as a disciple, or his worry about money? Or perhaps he’s just embarrassed by the unexpected intimacy of this scene, like I was embarrassed in that taxi cab.
Judas does not behold who Jesus is. Judas seems to believe that Jesus’ mission on earth is dependent upon the judicious use of resources.
This reminds me of a Facebook post by one of my professors, Miroslav Volf, a few months ago: he wrote, “It is astounding to me to see how prone we are to think we are Jesus’ Jesus, saviors of his fledgling project”.
We worry about the demise of Christendom, reduced attendance and closing churches, as if Christianity were not a divine, eternal relationship between the Creator of the Universe and humanity. Judas seems to have similar worries.
But his question is relevant. What of the poor? What of our responsibilities suspended between the upkeep of beautiful churches and liturgy and transcendent music, what of those responsibilities and our unhoused neighbors, racial inequality and unjust wages?
We need not believe in God to come to the conclusion we should help others. It is logical to do so. There are plenty of secular organizations that do just that. And we do well to participate in that work.
But as Christians we serve others for a different reason. Because God first loved us, we love. Because Jesus told us what we do to the least among us we do to him, we serve.
18th century Rabbi Levi Yitzhak explains “There are those who perceive the Torah and the commandments, all of which are ‘lights’ and are ‘rational’ . . . and there are those who are able to pierce through to the stream of being that flows beneath . . . revealed reality. . . prerational, unarticulated and unarticulable” (Blumenthal, 108).
Mary is that latter person. Her gratitude is unarticulable. She recognizes the majestic God, creator of the universe, who broke into creation in the person of Jesus Christ. She is grateful for his presence, for what he has taught her, the time he has spent with her, for the brother he has raised from the dead.
Mary pours perfumed nard over Jesus’s feet; we read in the Song of Songs,
“Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.” (Song of Songs, 1:3)
She undoes her hair to towel his feet dry.
And how does Jesus respond to Mary’s emotional vulnerability, to her intimate, embodied worship, and to Judas taking umbrage? Jesus says, “Leave her alone.”
Leave Mary alone to express her love. Leave her alone in her anticipatory grief. The poor you will always have with you. It is always rational and just to care for the poor.
Leave her alone with the Son of God who in a few short days will suffer and die, when Mary, again bearing precious oils and broken-hearted, will make her way to anoint his body.
Leave her alone, for soon all earthly accounting of nard and money, and the natural laws of life and death and the dark power of the grave, all these constraints will be obliterated when Jesus rises on the third day.